Choosing a Memorial – Helping With Bereavement

In the busy days leading up to Christmas, we are pleased to bring you a very special blog post. Fergus Wessel has a unique profession and a unique perspective on something many of us never think about until we’re forced to…memorial markers aka headstones aka tombstones. I read a blog post by Fergus where he talked about creating personalized memorials for children’s graves. I was touched by his words and his take on memorial markers and had to ask him to guest blog for us. We’ve had guest bloggers on this subject before because the creation of a memorial for your loved one can be a healing part of the grieving process. I hope you find Fergus’ words and work as special as we did, a fascinating and interesting read to catch your attention during this emotional time of year. ~ Charity Gallardo, Blog Coordinator

carving headstoneI am a letter cutter and I specialise in hand carved memorials. When I started my work I envisaged that I would be spending most of my time on large scale architectural work and opening plaques, but over the years my work has become more and more centred on making bespoke memorials. People ask me why I would want to spend my time making headstones, and isn’t it a very morbid job, and I answer that far from it, it is the most satisfying and worthwhile vocation.

Unlike large scale monumental masons, my work is incredibly client focused involving a very close working relationship based on mutual trust and understanding. People come to me wanting to interpret their thoughts when they themselves don’t always know what they want. What they all have in common however, is a desire to commemorate their loved one in the most fitting fashion. Below I share some insights and advice on choosing a headstone for your loved one.

Just as every person is unique, so I believe they each need a completely unique headstone. I usually start with a meeting with the client if possible, and they often come to me with some words and an idea of whether they might like a light or dark coloured stone. Sometimes they have an image in mind that they might want for a carving. Almost anything that can be drawn onto paper can be transferred to stone, as long as the design is not overcomplicated. When it comes to the wording, when asked for guidance I always try to encourage people to come up with their own epitaphs instead of choosing from a prescribed list. This can take time, but over the years I have had the privilege of carving some beautiful words. Try to avoid cliches like “in loving memory”, as these are often overused and tend to go in and out of fashion. This is your chance to say what you want to say, not what thousands of others have said.

traditional headstoneDo not feel hurried. Some people feel guilty for not placing a memorial stone within a year of the death. I encourage people to wait at least a year before even thinking about the memorial as this allows time for emotions to settle. Do not worry about what other people will think if the grave is left unmarked for some time. In the long term they will understand when they see the fitting tribute you finally commission.

hand carved slate headstoneThink about other senses such as touch. Many people like my pebble style headstones which are perfectly smooth and inviting to touch, especially when commissioning a stone for a child. These pebble stones are slightly less formal than a traditional headstone. One client asked for a hole to be carved in the stone, again with perfectly smooth sides which are wonderfully tactile.

slate headstone with horseDon’t try to fit too much onto the stone. Sometimes “less is more” and the simplest stones can be the most moving. Choosing a beautiful material and good design is all you need. You don’t even need to include someone’s full names and dates. It is your choice. For a really personal touch, some people like to include a message to be carved on the stone which will lie beneath the ground; a personal message between you and your loved one.

When choosing the material, think about the location of the stone as well as the wording. If possible, you want the stone to fit in with the surroundings, and you need to bear in mind the local envrionment, such as whether or not the stone will be in constant shade in a damp location. The amount of text will also dictate the material to some extent as a soft material like limestone for example needs large bold lettering, whereas a harder stone like slate or granite can take small, detailed lettering.

Ask to see the stone when it has been drawn out before it is cut if possible. This will give you a chance to make changes if necessary. Sometimes you can only make these decisions once you see the design on the stone.

bespoke-memorialsCommissioning a headstone can be very stressful and traumatic if done in a hurry with little regard to your feelings. However I believe that if you can find a mason who truly listens to you and is prepared to spend time on your design, and is happy to redraft it again and again until it is exactly what you want , then the whole process can be incredibly therapeutic and moving. My clients usually come and see me at least twice during the commissioning process, and are often present when I fix the stone in position, so they can be involved in every stage of the process. This involvement is important so that the headstone is their tribute and not mine. Over the years I have had the privilege to meet and get to know some incredibly brave and wonderful people, and the relationships that we have forged are very special; it is a real honour to be involved in something so personal and my clients put all their trust in me, and for that I am truly humbled.

video | Stoneletters

Fergus Wessel runs Stoneletters Studio, which specialises in fine, hand carved memorials. His website has a blog called The Headstone Guide where you can find further advice and inspiration.

Images courtesy Fergus Wessel.

Simplify – Tips to Help Grievers Reduce Holiday Stress

Local grief book author Judy Brizendine has some tips to help the grieving survive the holiday. Judy’s common sense approach to helping yourself survive the loss of a loved one is one we can all take heed of and learn from. You’ll find info on her self-help books at the bottom of this post. Meanwhile, she’s given us some helpful tips that we can get started using today. ~ Charity Gallardo, Blog Coordinator

th69PWML6JThe holidays are a crazy time of year, and the madness seems to start earlier as the years go by. We cannot even make it through Halloween these days before Christmas items start to appear widely in stores. I just want to scream, “Stop! It’s too soon!” And if you’re grieving a loss this holiday season, the days ahead probably seem even more stressful than usual. Keep reading to find some tips to help reduce your holiday stress.

Surrender Your Expectations

We create (or at least add to) a great deal of stress by holding onto unrealistic expectations for ourselves, our loved ones, and our holiday plans. We’re often bound by tradition and guilt-ridden if we suddenly don’t feel up to participating in the way we normally do. We pressure ourselves to make everything perfect. Breathe a big sigh of relief and give yourself a pass this year! Stay true to the things that you genuinely want to do – and be okay with scaling back for your own well-being and peace of mind this year. Next year, you’re free to reevaluate and adjust. Stay open and flexible. And promise to treat yourself gently.

Pare Down and Simplify

Simple can be just the recipe for a peaceful, pleasant holiday season. Sometimes the things we hold onto tightly are not the things that truly make a difference. Get down to basics! What matters most is people – and the precious time you share with folks you love. Overzealous decorating, cooking, shopping, and running yourself ragged are not the things that matter most. Pare down your to-do list. For this year, only keep the most important, treasured items on your list. Forget the rest. And don’t feel guilty about it!

thMW8Q7PUQSeize Moments of Quiet and Solitude

Take little ‘time-outs’ when you begin to feel overwhelmed. Step away for a few minutes, get quiet, fix something warm to drink, and breathe deeply. Clear your mind and refocus. Take a moment to get your mind off the chaos around and within you. Listen to peaceful music, read a comforting passage, picture a tranquil scene in your mind, look at a favorite photo that makes you smile – whatever settles you down. And then get back to whatever you were doing.

Helpful Tips:
• Simplify (wherever, whenever, and however possible)
• Decide on a couple of traditions or activities that are most meaningful to you – and let go of the rest
• Surrender your expectations
• Refuse to feel guilty
• Strive for peacefulness and tranquility
• Accept that this year is different—but realize you can still experience moments of joy if you choose to do so
• Take little ‘time-outs’
• Know that you are not alone

Times of loss are painful and difficult periods, and sometimes they overshadow the rest of your life. Yet remember that good and joyous times still exist together with the sad ones. Respect and acknowledge your feelings, whatever they are, but look for moments of joy in the midst of your grief.

Wishing you a blessed holiday season …

Judy Brizendine is an author, a blogger, and a speaker. She is committed to focusing attention on grief—and changing the way people view one of life’s toughest experiences everyone will face. Judy has written two books, STUNNED by Grief and STUNNED by Grief Journal. STUNNED by Grief  captured the Gold Medal for Nonfiction-Grief in the 2013 Readers’ Favorite International Awards, and both books received Award-Winning Finalist honors in their respective Self-Help categories in the “USA Best Books 2011” Awards, sponsored by USA Book News. STUNNED by Grief was named to Library Journal’s list of “Best Books 2011: Self-Help.”

Photo Credit: Photos courtesy of

Do the Holidays With Your Loved One

687857_90007417Today, Chaplain Gary Roe invites us to “Do the Holidays With Your Loved One, Not Without Them.” This approach to loss is much like celebrating your loved one’s life at their funeral. Accentuate the positive and cherish your loved one’s life by using special things about them to make your holidays shine. ~ Charity Gallardo, Blog Coordinator.

The Holidays are here. And they hurt.

This is my third article on Holiday Grief. In Holiday Grief#1: Happy Holidays? Not for Everyone, we talked about how this season is hard enough, but grief can make it nearly impossible.

In Holiday Grief #2: Why Holidays are Hard and What You Can Do about It, we talked about the unrealistic expectations that come with this time of year. We must remember that WE get to choose what we do, when, how, and with whom. As we take ourselves seriously, we end up grieving well and honoring our loved one more.

Today we’re going to talk about how to include our loved one in the holidays.

Our world says we have to move on. I’m sorry. I can’t do that if it means moving on without my loved one. But what if I could actually move on with them, but in a new way?

Holidays, more than any other time of year, remind us of our losses. We’re keenly aware of who’s missing. Everything reminds us of them. We bump into a memory with every step.

You have holiday traditions. Whatever it is – special meals, decorating, house lights, the tree, stockings, presents, worship, etc. – it’s difficult to imagine it without your loved one. Nothing is the same.

Try meeting the holidays head on. Instead of letting the holidays use you, use them to honor your loved one and love those around you.


Be proactive. Plan specific ways to include and celebrate the one who passed. Here are a few ideas:

• Set up an empty chair honoring your loved one at the table
• Put a candle in a prominent place and light it in remembrance
• Have everyone bring a card that reminds them of him or her. At an appropriate time, have each of them share their card with the group.
• Put a present with their name on it under the tree. When you open gifts, pass the present around and have each person share a memory.

You know your loved one. You know your traditions. Be creative.

These times will most likely be emotional. That’s okay. You’re giving yourself and others a chance to grieve in a healthy manner. If you don’t celebrate your loved one somehow, chances are the grief will leak out anyway, but in less desirable ways.

New traditions can be born this year – traditions that honor your loved one and help you move on with them, in a new way. They’ll always be a part of you. It would be a shame not to include them and give them a prominent place in your holidays.
I have one more article on Holiday Grief to share with you, so stay tuned. Next time we’ll be talking about a secret you can use to make these holidays a healing experience.

Your life has changed forever. These holidays might be difficult, but they can still be good.

P.S. I have a brief, FREE e-book for you called, I Miss You: A Holiday Survival Kit. You can download it today at

Gary Roe has experienced a number of losses over the years and currently works as a writer, speaker, and chaplain with Hospice Brazos Valley. He is the author of Saying Goodbye: Facing the Loss of a Loved One and Surviving the Holidays Without You. He also writes inspirational articles based on the stories of hospice patients for several newspapers. Visit him at

Photo credit:

Why Holidays are Hard and What You Can Do About It

SONY DSCChaplain Gary Roe has another guest post for us about surviving the holidays. At this time of year so many people feel lonely and alone and it’s well known that bad weather can exacerbate depression. Add grief into the mix and you have a recipe for disaster. Posts like Gary’s become welcome lifelines to those who have suffered a loss. They are a light, a helping hand, and a warm hug when things seem most dark. We are happy to be able to bring these holiday posts to you. ~ Charity Gallardo, Blog Coordinator

“Bah, humbug!” we want to shout.

Or perhaps something worse.

In my last article, Holiday Grief #1: Happy Holidays? Not for Everyone, we said holidays are hard enough without our loss staring us in the face. When we’re immersed in grief, holidays can become an overwhelming, even terrifying burden.

What makes holidays hard? Lurking behind a lot of holiday stress is an unseen culprit known as expectations.

You have expectations. You have them of yourself and others. Others have expectations of you. You have expectations of yourself based on what you think others’ expectations are. Trying to juggle these in the midst of a loss is like herding cats or installing a screen door on a submarine. It doesn’t work.

So here’s the key: YOU get to choose.

  • What you want to do
  • How you want to do it
  • And with whom.

The holidays are different this year because you’re different. You’re grieving. And you won’t grieve well or honor your loved if you simply go with the flow.

Again, YOU get to choose.

How do you do that?

  1. Take yourself seriously. Be nice to you. This is a way you can honor your loved one. What’s good and beneficial for YOU this year?
  2. Learn to say, “NO.” Yes, someone might get upset. Try being proactive and saying, “This year is going to be hard without my loved one, so I’m going to do things differently. I hope you’ll understand.”
  3. Let go of guilt. It’s not your responsibility to meet everyone’s expectations (you won’t be able to anyway!). Do what’s good for you.

YOU get to choose.

Be proactive. Decide beforehand. As you take yourself seriously, you’ll be grieving well and honoring your loved one at the same time. If you do what’s good for you, it’s usually good for others too. You can love others by being honest about your grief.

I have two more articles on Holiday Grief, so stay tuned. The next one will be on how to do these holidays WITH your loved one, rather than WITHOUT them.

Your life has changed forever. These holidays will be different, but they can still be good.

P.S. I’ve written a FREE, brief e-book for those dealing with Holiday Grief. It’s called I Miss You: A Holiday Survival Kit. You can download it at

Gary Roe has experienced a number of losses over the years and currently works as a writer, speaker, and chaplain with Hospice Brazos Valley. He is the author of Saying Goodbye: Facing the Loss of a Loved One and Surviving the Holidays Without You. He also writes inspirational articles based on the stories of hospice patients for several newspapers. Visit him at

Photo credit:

Grief is a Beast

dal_cover_squareThis week we are honored to have filmmaker Sofia Wellman as our guest blogger. Sofia not only brings us a blog post rife with her own personal experiences with loss and grief, but with a fresh perspective that is perhaps something we all need at this time of year. Her words, unknowingly, fit well into our Grief, Faith and Culture category here on the blog too. Her non-fiction film about grief and life is something to make us all think so make sure to watch the trailer. ~ Charity Gallardo, Blog Coordinator.

While I am working on my latest film, the airport has become far too familiar. On my way out of town for film shoots, I often stop by the bank to make a deposit in my safety deposit box. A habit of filmmakers is to make duplicate copies of their captured footage on hard drives, in fire safes, and in off-site storage. The safety deposit box belonged to my mother. Since my mother’s death, every time I am there, I revisit the memory of the day she took me to put my name on the account. It is a fond memory that makes me smile inside. She was excited to show me what she had stored for safekeeping. Nothing in it was of much monetary value, but the treasured trinkets of jewelry belonged to her mother, who died when my mother was very young. The day Mother invited me to see the items that she valued by the weight they had on her heart, I invited her to do the unimaginable. It didn’t take but a nudge for her to partake in such a decadent pleasure. She finally allowed herself to take them home to enjoy.

Waiting for a bank employee to let me inside the room, I was conscious of every passing moment, since I had a flight to catch. When the bank manager met me, we walked toward the vault where all the safety deposit boxes were stored out of reach of anyone without a key. The manager immediately noticed that my box was tagged, indicating my mother’s death. How did they know, I wondered. I guess with technology, the deceased’s Social Security number is flagged in a pool of data for other institutions to access as easily as information about a stolen credit card.

Occupied by the memories of my mother and feeling hurried by the lack of time I had left to spare, I was oblivious to most of what the bank clerk said, until I heard, “You need to bring in a copy of your mother’s death certificate, so that we can take her name off of the safety deposit box.” I was shocked by my reaction. I tearfully pleaded to the bank manager that I could not take my dead mother’s name off as a joint owner. Where did that reaction come from? Simultaneously I was struck with sadness and stunned by its inappropriateness. Still, I could not stop myself from trying to convince the bank manager that the protocol was wrong and unnecessary. As I supported my case, my behavior and the lack of reasoning behind my argument were hard to justify. I guarantee that her management training failed to prepare her for the seemingly crazed woman begging her not to remove her dead mother’s name off a piece of paper.

Grief is that way. It appears out of nowhere to remind you that it hasn’t gone far. The sightings aren’t given a calendar to reference, nor do they care about being inconvenient. In that moment, the pain and sadness is as fresh as if the death happened yesterday. As one woman in my film, Death as Life, said, “Grief is a beast; it can sneak up on you at any time.”

Foreign to our Western culture, some cultures combine death with life. In 2002, I visited the enchanted land of Tibet. While Tibetans lacked the technology and daily conveniences we take for granted, it was easy to respect them for their culture, rich with a knowing about life that permeated everything they did.

For those of us who trekked across the world to experience the traditions of this far-off land, it would have been a miscalculation of the itinerary if the cremation grounds weren’t part of the visit. The cremation grounds are a significant visible contrast to the way we isolate death in the West. I witnessed many people who lost their loved ones at the cremation pyre. Oddly, they were singing and chanting. I can’t say they seemed happy, but they didn’t seem immersed in sorrow, either. I represented the US very well on that visit. As the smell filled my nose and the smoke filled my lungs, tears ran down my cheeks, while I cried for those who lost loved ones. At least I thought that was what my tears were about. It was much later when I recognized that the sneak preview of death that day raised my fears of losing someone close to me. When we avoid death, and then it happens, we are left without resources to contain the intense feelings that follow.

In our Western culture, death is a secret rite of passage we all know we will take, but we somehow believe we can avoid it. The energy to hide from death is funneled into things such as entering into and staying in unhealthy relationships, overworking, and other emotionally and substance-addictive distractions that keep us too occupied, so death seems far away.

Death wants to be noticed, however. When we deny its existence, we deny life. Life is constantly moving, and to think we can stop the movement by clinging to what we want is like jumping in front of a semi truck on the freeway, believing we can stop it. With the movement of life, there is always death, from physical death to the death we experience as change.

When I set out to create the film, Death as Life, I wanted to break the barrier that surrounds the ultimate death—physical death. As fate would have it, I was my test audience. During the making of the film, I lost the three people closest to me. My two best friends died, and my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. I knew then that I was onto something, because working on the film helped me heal. One of my co-editors was then going through a major breakup, and she said that the film helped her tremendously. My conclusion is that when we accept death as part of life, it becomes easier to accept change. Don’t get me wrong; loss brings with it intense emotions, but if we befriend the sorrow, we have an ally. The sorrow of death opens our heart to acceptance. With acceptance, we allow life in; not the life we think we can control and mold, but the life that gives us inner meaning.

When the assisted-living facility called me in the middle of the night to let me know my mother had died, I kept repeating, like a mantra, “What am I going to do?” The attendant on the other end of the phone tried to talk me through what I needed to do physically, but I was not referring to the physical actions I had to take. I couldn’t imagine my life without the woman who had loved me since birth. I suddenly felt very alone in the world.

My mother was a fiercely independent woman who was stripped of all her dignity and freedom when she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. She fought her diagnosis for more than five years, but in the last six months of her life, she finally surrendered and accepted the end of her life as she knew it. During that time, she was so full of love that it was sometimes hard to take it all in. I believed she crossed through the veil that separates planes of existence. I had the opportunity to sit in front of a woman who radiated love, and often I chose to focus on the dysfunction of the assisted-living facility she was in. What an appropriate sampling of life. We push away love, because if we really feel it at the wellspring of our existence, fear whispers “death” with an inaudible but piercing pitch.

The holidays are symbolic of celebration. They come with a lot pressure to be joyous during a time we can’t help remembering people who are no longer with us on our physical journey. However, their love is with us. I don’t mean to sound like I have a Pollyanna voice, but when we fear death, it may be difficult to hear what I am saying, because fear overshadows love.

During the holidays I strive to be grateful for all the love that has touched my life. Denial, anger, bargaining, and depression are the breaks I may need to take here and there, before I fall into acceptance. When I accept loss as part of life, I have a glimpse of being free from fear; not the fearlessness used to prove I could do something, but the fearlessness that reaches inward. It is an inner knowing, a knowing that is governed by intelligence incomprehensible to my human brain. Mystics call it the peace that surpasses understanding. It is where death and life are one, and not opponents that coerce us to choose sides.

Sofia Wellman is a filmmaker, author, and speaker. While she travels the country for her work, her home base is Atlanta. Her most recent works are the film, Death as Life, and the book, If the Shoe Fits, Go Barefoot. She can be contacted through her website,